This is part one of my interview with Garren Teich, exec chef of 1515 Restaurant; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Twenty-seven acres devoted to chickens, goats and vegetables. That's where Garren Teich grew up, in farm country north of Philadelphia, where his dad, a horticulturist, tended to a plant nursery while his mother cooked supper -- and taught her son to do the same. "My mom made dinner every night, and even at nine or ten, she was encouraging me to cook," recalls Teich, today the thirty-year-old executive chef of 1515 Restaurant. He started with mass batches of applesauce, and even when they didn't work out, he wasn't deterred. "I took an interest in cooking really early on, and even though I made some pretty bad stuff, I've always been obsessed with the creative aspect of cooking," says Teich, who adds that the "reward of being able to eat what you cook -- even when it's bad -- was always fun for me."
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Teich's first job was at a country club not far from where he lived, and while he admits that his culinary skills weren't particularly polished, he dove in fork first, and eventually moved his way up from line cooking to being the chief of Philly cheesesteak night, a Thursday-evening ritual of the elite. "It was honestly the hardest job there," he says. "I'd be slinging twenty cheesesteaks at a time on the flattop. Philadelphians are infatuated with their cheesesteaks."
At the same time, he was attending culinary school at a community college, immersing himself in a three-year program that required 3,000 hours of cooking in professional kitchens. He eventually quit the country-club gig to work at a local bistro, where cheesesteaks were replaced by French and Italian cuisine, with a little Asian tossed in for variety. He stayed for a year, and in 2007, after graduation, he and his girlfriend (now wife) headed for Colorado. "It was either Maine or Colorado, and we decided that Maine looked like a nice place to retire, while Colorado seemed more geared toward a youthful lifestyle," explains Teich.
Once he arrived, he spent a few months exploring Denver and Boulder, and ended up taking a job at Restaurant 4580. "I was still a bit scared of the big city," confesses Teich, "so I spent the first two years of my career here in Boulder, just getting a feel for everything before making the big move to Denver" -- which he did in 2009, landing a line-cook stint at 1515 Restaurant. He'd been spending his spare time delving into molecular gastronomy -- what Teich calls "progressive cooking" -- and that was a style 1515 Restaurant had already embraced. "I'd gotten the Alinea cookbook and started playing around with agar and other molecular elements of cooking, mostly because I felt like I needed to have a solid understanding of it to keep up," he says. "I didn't want to be left behind."
The exec chef at the time, Chuck James, along with his sous, John Brown, were deeply interested in -- and implementing -- molecular elements in their cooking, and Teich was a sponge. "Because of everything they taught me about molecular chemicals, I learned that you can do whatever you want -- whatever you can imagine -- and it's an amazing, progressive tool that makes things the exact way that I want them," he says. Olive oil, for example, is now one of his favorite ingredients: "Olive oil is olive oil -- it's flat and sits on the plate -- but with molecular cooking, you can turn it into a gel, and it becomes a texture, but still tastes like olive oil. It's really cool."
Still, he stresses that he's different from his predecessors -- and perhaps even more innovative. "For the tasting menu, I'm now creating plates that we use from various elements: We have slate plates, a moss box that fogs out liquid nitrogen that we serve our snail course on, and we have a sand globe on which we serve our seafood. It's just a way to differentiate myself -- and the restaurant," he says.
"I work with a super-talented crew that really makes me look good, and our goal is to keep coming up with stuff that turns heads in this town. We're still trying to push the envelope and put out food that wows people," he concludes.
In the following interview, Teich expands on his passion for "progressive cuisine," explains what he's doing with bathroom soap, and reveals the new rooftop plans for 1515 Restaurant.
How do you describe your food? Seasonal, creative and ever-changing. I once read somewhere that "if you made something that changed the world last year, it's not good enough this year" -- and that's my philosophy: constant self-improvement. Always try to make things better than before. I try to use classic flavors but present them in a way that creates a real experience for the diner, not just a meal.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, obsessive, passionate, easygoing, perfectionist, trustworthy, fun, kind, adventurous and patient.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love chopped fresh herb mixes and anything that's obscure. I can spend hours roaming the aisle of the Asian market looking for things I've never worked with.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? The chambered compression machine and Vita-Prep both get a good workout in our kitchen. The compression machine is a great way to add flavor, and we also use it for our sous-vide dishes, because it locks in the moisture and flavors. The Vita-Prep makes super-smooth purées and soups quickly.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I go out to Palisade for fresh peaches every year, and then I come back and make everything from pies and jams to chutneys and sorbets. I always make sure to can a few dozen so that I can enjoy them year 'round, too. And I'll pick up whatever I can find at the farmers' market that looks good and run them as specials or use the ingredients for the tasting menu.
One ingredient that you won't touch: The smell and taste of white pepper tastes really rancid to me. I know some chefs like to use it for appearance, hiding the typical specks of black pepper, but I don't think the flavor of white pepper is comparable to black.
One food you detest: Raw tomatoes. I can eat them cooked, stewed, roasted, sun-dried and pretty much every other way, but there's something about a raw tomato on a salad or a burger that I just can't seem to enjoy.
One food you can't live without: I love eggs for their versatility -- there are just so many ways to prepare them, and we feature them in so many of our scratch-made dishes. I couldn't cook without them.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see a no-waste movement. We recycle quite a bit at 1515, and I'm constantly trying to come up with ways to utilize things that I've been throwing way for years. My latest plan is to make soap from the rendered fat off of our stocks; even in the bathroom, you may soon have a choice between chicken or veal.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I wish the term "molecular gastronomy" would go away. I think it sounds too technical, and people who are unfamiliar with what it encompasses are quick to pass it up. I prefer "progressive" or even "modernist" cuisine to molecular gastronomy.
Favorite dish on your menu: The Chateaubriand, a classic dish that we modernize a bit. We have a torched gelée vale on top of the steak, which makes the presentation of the dish very unique, plus it adds great flavor.
Biggest menu bomb: Crispy sweetbreads with sweet soy and steamed buns. There seems to be general confusion about what sweetbreads are; so many people think that they're brains, but they're actually the thymus gland. Either way, I think most people just don't have a good association when they think of sweetbreads. But they're actually quite good when prepared correctly.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not doing line checks before service. The line check is important because it's the last opportunity you get to make sure all the prep is ready to go before service. The last thing you want is to run out of something or not have everything up to par once service starts.
Biggest pet peeve: Food splatter on the kitchen equipment. If I see it, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and clean it. Keeping the kitchen as spotless as possible is important to me. I can't be excited about cooking when there's a mess to clean up.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Drive. I want to see a spark of excitement. I want to know that they take initiative to learn and experiment on their own time and that they are excited about what they're doing -- and I want to them to be able to bring good ideas to the menu and understand the type of cuisine we do at 1515.
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What's in the pipeline? We have plans to build a rooftop herb garden at 1515 this summer, which I'm super-excited about. There's nothing better that going out to the garden to pick your own herbs. The aromas are so inspiring.